I am peddling my bike along the paved black strip that runs past the green metal trash bins we call Dempsey Dumpsters, parked behind our house. Six and short for my age, I’m churning my legs hard. But even with all that effort, the bike only seems to crawl. That’s because my father’s got his hand pressed on the back.
Up until today, a set of small wheels attached to each side kept the bike upright. Every time I climbed on, the bike teetered a bit, but didn’t fall.
Though I don’t remember witnessing this part, my father must have taken the training wheels off before I got on the bike. Now, without my being aware of it, he has suddenly released his hand. My feet start whizzing around, so fast, my short, thin legs barely keep up. I am no longer riding down the paved blacktop behind the dumpsters. The bike and I are flying. The little duplex where I live at Hickam Air Force Base on the Island of Oahu passes far below me, as I head off, all on my own, to explore new worlds.
This memory has stayed with me for decades. It centers on the seconds after my father released his hand, and for the first time, I experienced flying. The physical sensation of weightlessness and possibility has stayed with me for years, because it felt so different from when I was being weighed down and held back.
Strange as it seems, the man who made the experience possible is missing from the memory. I know he’s there, because I feel the pull, slowing me down. I’m certain this happened, so his hand must have been on the bike. But since I can’t see my father when I reimagine this, might that hand have been someone else’s?
The question comes up not only because I can’t see my father when I imagine this moment. It’s there because I don’t remember a single special childhood moment with my dad. Writing those words and referring to the man whose last name I still carry as dad, is uncommon. I never speak or think of him as my dad, but rather with the distant and less affectionate-sounding, father.
I have another clear memory from this same time period that also involves my father. He has just returned from one of his frequent trips to Japan. I am sitting in the narrow living room of our cramped duplex, on the floor. My father’s olive-green nylon flight bag is open next to me, and I am lifting out presents he’s brought from Japan.
Among the gifts are a pair of black velvet zories. The straps are fat, the velvet soft. The flat part of the sandals is made of tightly woven bamboo. My father has also brought me a bright white pair of tabis, little socks to be worn with the zories, in which there’s a separate pocket for my big toe.
Just as in the bike memory, I don’t see or remember my father being there, either sitting on the floor or across the living room on the couch. I feel certain he wouldn’t have gotten down on the floor to join me. What I know of the man assures me of that.
And what I know of him isn’t much. As I’ve reflected on my father over the years, I have come to recognize that he and I were practically strangers. A career Air Force officer and son of Hungarian immigrants, with black hair, olive-shaded skin and dark brown eyes, he came and went from the life I shared with my mother and two older sisters. In one early memory, he is driving our boat-size car out to the flight line, where he parks next to the plane he’s about to board. He gets out of the car that I know my mother will be driving home. He owns variously styled uniforms for different occasions and seasons, but today is wearing his poufy olive-green flight jacket, much like the one George W. Bush donned when he foolishly declared, “Mission Accomplished.” My father isn’t a pilot, though he looks like one. He is the commander of an Air Evac squadron, on his way to visit part of his squadron at an American base in Japan.
For several years when I was in junior high and high school, my father lived away from us, first in Germany and later in Vietnam. One day, my eighth-grade guidance counselor called me into her office and asked why my father didn’t live with us.
“I don’t know,” I said, my face growing warm as I sensed there was something shameful about our family life, though I didn’t understand what.
Later, I would come to believe that we hadn’t been able to join my father in Germany because he’d not been assigned a place for us to live there. To this day, I don’t know if that is true or if it’s not.
Piecing together the truth about my father has been a lifelong endeavor. Six years in therapy helped. I now understand that I mixed up scattered small facts about him with imaginary traits. For a long time, I desperately wanted him to be someone else, more like a few other fathers I knew, such as kind and caring Mr. Bryant, the dad of a longtime friend.
The problem with making up a fantasy father was that I didn’t know how a real loving father was supposed to act. Instead of creating that sort of man, I fashioned him into a glamorous character.
In many ways, he made that easy. He was a storyteller, after all. As a young man, he wrote stories and sold them to newspapers in his native Cleveland for five dollars a pop.
Though he abandoned writing long before I started making up stories about him, he still had the eye and skills of a writer in how he viewed and described the world. Because he spent time in the actual world, flying to Athens or Paris, or even to Tripoli, Libya, characters and scenes he shared from his life temporarily lifted me out of my dull existence, living in a small New Jersey town, where nothing of interest ever happened.
In my imagination, I contrasted this fantasy father with a mother who was all too real. When it came to the woman who gave me life, I was clear-eyed to a fault.
As we said in those days, my mother had a drinking problem. Alcoholism was still hidden in the far corner of a dark closet, so that’s as far as my awareness could go. The problem my mother had with alcohol was that she drank way too much.
Unlike with my father, who I could pretend was the dazzling creature I conjured up in my mind, I never expected my mother to be better than the woman I saw each day. She was unhappy, dreadfully so, and everyone but her got blamed, including me. The drinking filled in for the life she once had when I was young, and she’d get dolled up in sleek, fitted brocade dresses and heels and go out to dinner and parties with her handsome young spouse. Alone now, my mother would fix her first drink as soon as dinner was done, starting with a handful of ice-cubes dropped into a tall glass, then a jigger of Seagram’s Seven whiskey poured over the ice, followed by a long splash of fizzy ginger ale. She would ferry the drink down a short set of stairs that began outside the kitchen and led to the gloomy den. Once there, she’d sip the first drink in between loud, smacking puffs off her L & M cigarette, the air filling with a battery-acid odor from the smoke. If I happened to walk into the kitchen from my hiding place upstairs, I could hear my mother quietly muttering to herself.
I don’t know how many drinks my mother usually consumed in a night. By the end of the evening, her speech would be slurred and she’d repeat the same phrase a nauseating number of times. I had forgotten by then if I’d ever loved her. All I felt now was shame, colored by disgust.
So, I didn’t have trouble turning my father into a hero. He wore those uniforms, for one thing, those perfectly pressed cottons and wools, the summer duds a clean, sharp tan and the winter a slightly grayish navy-blue. The brass belt buckle and his black tie-shoes gleamed. His straight black hair was neatly trimmed and slicked back. He smelled fresh, with the rousing scent of Old Spice.
In the early days, I was never consciously aware that my father didn’t love me. Buried far below what I might realize and admit, I believed this important man, the commander of an Air Evacuation squadron who flew all over the world, even attending NATO meetings in Paris, couldn’t possibly care about a girl like me, with few talents or qualities worth celebrating. Just as I felt the need to create a fantasy father, I determined I had no choice but to be a perfect daughter. Only a girl smarter and more exciting than me could be loved by such a man.
My first and most difficult task was to get this busy man to notice me. When my father lived at home with us, he was often distant and silent. That was the case, except at night. He too had a drinking problem, though no one in the family ever mentioned it. Unlike my mother, a solitary drinker who mostly didn’t bother anyone when she got soused, my father was a loud drunk, drawing attention to himself the more he consumed and the later it got.
When my father drank, he paid attention to me. Or at least that’s what I thought. In truth, my father talked at me. He would start in on some story, a funny or interesting incident that happened on one of his trips. In every foreign city he frequented where there was an American Air Force base, my father made friends. As I understand it, these were the sorts of local people who befriended the American military, helping them navigate strange cities where they didn’t know the language or customs. Usually, these stories were about times my father’s pal, Al, in Athens did such-and-such, or when a group of guys went out to watch belly dancers at a club in Tripoli.
My father had a way of telling the story that included me, or I felt it did. In truth, he craved an audience and I filled that role. Because he was physically away from us so much of the time and emotionally absent at home, these moments took on an importance and intimacy they didn’t actually possess.
Even as my father seemed to be paying attention to me, he wasn’t. In these moments, or any other, he never asked me questions – how was I doing or what was happening in my life, or God forbid, how was I feeling, was I happy or sad? We did not – and I can’t recall this happening even once – have a conversation. These were simply monologues, my father going on and on about his life and himself, never giving me a chance to fill him in on mine.
As the night wore on and more and more drinks were thrown down, the interesting, and often funny, man my father could be turned bitter. His voice took on an ugly sharp edge I grew to anticipate and dread. Sometimes, he would pull off one of his slippers and hurl it at the small TV screen, canned laughter droning in the background. Words like moron shot out of his mouth, as if he had to expel them to not be sick. My shoulders hunched, I’d sit, trying to make myself small enough to disappear. Eventually, he’d get up and go to the kitchen for another drink. I’d take the opportunity to skedaddle away to my bedroom.
A number of years after I left home, my parents separated for good. I was living in Northern New Jersey then, not far from New York City, attending college, when my father got in touch with me, saying he wanted to visit. My parents had fallen into a bitter divorce. I was the only one of their three daughters under twenty-one, and they both wanted me to testify on their behalf. I refused.
I don’t recall how I learned that my father was with another woman now, and he was bringing her to meet me. I do remember that I liked her almost at once, mostly because she seemed the complete opposite of my mother. Val was attractive and well-dressed, a confident person quite sure of her opinions and herself.
The moment I saw my father that day, I could tell Val’d had an effect. The man who looked perfect in his uniform but whose taste in civilian clothes was sometimes embarrassingly bad looked like he’d stepped off the pages of GQ, wearing a lovely tan suede jacket and dark gray slacks.
He also acted differently, trying, I could tell, to appear nicer. Right off, I understood that he wanted to convince Val we had a real father-daughter relationship. Val had been a nurse in the Air Force for nearly twenty years and served as chief flight nurse in my father’s squadron. She hadn’t ever married or had children. Maybe my father assumed she could be fooled.
We might have gone out for breakfast or lunch. I don’t remember now. I do recall my father offering to take me shopping at the local mall. Nothing like this had ever happened before. I’d always loved clothes but was never given much money to buy them.
Anything I wanted were the words that drifted from my father’s mouth, which should have propelled me into the junior department at Gimbels, draping pants, sweaters and dresses over my arm and jogging into the fitting room to try them on.
As it turned out, I didn’t pull one thing off the rack. My forehead felt clogged, a stuffed-with-cotton sensation I would later recognize as a sign I felt depressed. This was a sick sort of game my father had decided to play, pretending to be a different guy from the one I knew. He expected me to change, and I couldn’t. This man doesn’t love me, I wanted to blurt out to Val, but my lips stayed buttoned. Instead, I simply refused to play the game.
“I don’t see anything I want,” I told my father, after listlessly flipping through an array of dresses and blouses.
Several years later, my father and Val retired from the Air Force, settling into a lovely Spanish-style home Val had purchased decades before, in a toney San Antonio neighborhood. It was the sort of neighborhood we might have driven around on one of my father’s long-ago Sunday drives. Though Val had owned the house for years, she’d never lived there.
Like my father’s new wardrobe, the house fit with this updated version of my fantasy dad. That guy now had taste and money, which when I lived with my mother, we always lacked. I visited him in that house, and the place transformed me. I became a girl who’d grown up with privileges, in a beautiful home to which I wanted to invite my friends.
But when I stepped outside and started jogging through the neighborhood, I knew I didn’t belong. I feared one of the residents was going to call the cops, assuming I could only be there to do harm.
For a subsequent visit, I took my friend, Bernard. After we returned home to Washington, D.C., Bernard said to me, “If I sat next to your father on a plane, I would have found him fascinating. But he’s your father, and he acts like he doesn’t even know you.”
Many years later, I received a note from my father.
“Will be in San Francisco May 10-13. Hope to see you then.”
May 10th was only a week and a half away. I hadn’t seen my father for years, though I wrote occasional letters, touting any accomplishment I thought might impress him enough to love me.
By this time, I had lived on the West Coast for years, mostly in San Francisco but with a short stint in Seattle. During that decade and a half, my father had never visited me. Now he was coming, but the note made clear that the object of the trip was to visit San Francisco, not me. He hadn’t bothered to contact me first, to schedule the trip when it would be convenient. For all he knew, I might have been out of town.
Plus, there was that last sentence. He hoped to see me. My father was traveling over 1,700 miles across country, by train I would later find out, and he didn’t even expect to see his daughter once he reached his destination.
Though I was busy working and finishing up the semester in graduate school, I made time to see him one of the three days he planned to be in town. He and Val were staying at the Holiday Inn in Fisherman’s Wharf, the most touristy part of San Francisco, a charmless neighborhood in one of the most charming cities in the world. As I entered the motel room, my mood plummeted, down from an edgy anxiety to the stuffed-forehead gloom I knew as depression. The dark brown drapes were drawn, keeping out the sunlight and a view of the cobalt sky that made my heart burst on days like this one, when the fog peeled away and the water in San Francisco Bay shimmered.
Right off, I could see that my father had turned into an old man. Stooped and thinner than I recalled, he shuffled across the room and gave me a cursory hug. The TV was on, of course, the sound turned up too high. My father shuffled back across the room and picked up one of several objects set out across the dresser, lifted it to his nostril and inhaled.
As always, Val looked stylish and impeccable in a pair of pressed navy slacks, a silk blouse, and a navy and gold scarf knotted under her chin and lying smoothly across each shoulder. We said hello and that was all.
It took an inordinate amount of time for us to plod down the block, to a large, mediocre tourist trap for lunch. I ordered a chicken salad I barely touched. We took our slow-as-molasses time to get back to the room. My father used one of the inhalers again, and then turned on the TV. I said I needed to go.
I never saw my father again. A few years after that trip, he passed away following a massive heart attack.
By the time he died, I had spent countless hours in therapy, trying to unravel the reasons why I kept ending up in failed relationships. I had finally gotten involved with a wonderful man who I loved, and surprising to me, loved me back.
Given the absence of a father in my life, both physically and emotionally, I hadn’t expected his death to make a difference. But when he died, I was suddenly filled with a combustible mix of rage and sorrow, grateful to be able to sit across from my kind therapist, Janice, and sort it out.
Through the strangely miraculous process of talk-therapy, I came to understand that underneath the crass acceptance of the non-relationship with my father, I had still been hoping for change. In fact, I had written to him about six months before his death, at last telling the truth that his lack of interest had hurt me. Not surprisingly, he never wrote back.
I learned of his death from a voicemail message Val left on my phone. A few weeks later, I received a note from her in which she explained that my father’s body had been cremated, and his ashes would be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Did I want to attend?
At first, I thought it would be cruel and heartless not to go. Even though I wasn’t close to Val, I considered her a decent person, probably grieving over my father’s death. She didn’t deserve to be treated badly, simply because of my father’s behavior toward me.
I didn’t want to go, though. The more I considered why, I realized that I couldn’t grieve a father I’d never had. I finally understood the dark feelings that had come up after his passing. Now that he was gone forever, there was no chance he would ever know and love me.
I didn’t go into all of that with Val. I simply said I wouldn’t be at Arlington National Cemetery that day, because my father and I had never had much of a relationship. She replied right away and said she understood.
In all the hours I’ve spent thinking about my father, I never, until writing this, wondered what he thought of me. Before writing a letter or talking to my father, I tried to come up with some little successes I’d recently had in my life that I could toss out to impress him. I did this because I thought of myself as a failure, so assumed he considered me one as well. My being a failure, I unconsciously believed, made it impossible for him to love me.
So, did he, with my help, create a fantasy daughter, a girl – and later woman – he found more appealing than the real one? And if he were alive today, would I finally have the courage to ask?
A few months after his death, the anger and sadness melted away. Just as love remains after the adored one’s passing, its absence also endures. What I’ve been left with is a melancholy yearning, not for his love, which I finally understand was impossible, but for the paternal caring and devotion every child deserves.
Before Father’s Day every year, a writer I know asks her Facebook followers what they learned from their dads. I read the post this year, as I have in previous ones, wondering how I might respond. Writing this now, I think back to that long-ago day, when the training wheels came off my bike. As I peddled away from my father, I experienced a burst of joy at the sudden and unexpected sense of freedom. On that day, and then decades later following his death, my father was no longer holding me back, slowing down every attempt I made to move forward on my own power.
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